Houthi attacks fuel resurgence of Somali piracy

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Attacks by Iran-backed Houthi militants on the Red Sea have reinvigorated piracy networks in Somalia, with criminal groups growing in both number and force, a European naval commander said.

The Yemen-based Houthis began attacking vessels in the Red Sea last year to pressure Israel and its allies over the war in the Gaza Strip.

Their campaign has roiled global shipping, forcing many vessels to sail thousands of miles around southern Africa instead. That’s driven a boom in carbon emissions and boosted freight bills as the ships find themselves employed for far longer to deliver the same cargo.

Pirates “think there is a window of opportunity due to the Houthis’ presence,” with increased traffic along Somalia’s coast and the pirates venturing further out into the Indian Ocean, said Vice Admiral Ignacio Villanueva, who commands a European Union operation tasked with curbing piracy. “They are really trying to stretch the Western, international operations’ limits and capabilities.”

One of the tactics being used by the pirates is to hijack smaller boats such as skiffs or dhows and travel for about 10 days into the middle of the Indian Ocean where they attempt to attack bigger ships, Villanueva said on July 1. About 10 of the recent attacks were carried out on large vessels, while a ransom fee was only paid on one occasion, he said.

The increasing number of attacks are being carried out by groups that are “well armed, organized and bigger in numbers” than ever before, he said.

We are encountering 25 or 30 pirates on the same attack,” Villanueva said. “They are very well coordinated with satellite phones and heavy weapons.”

There have been 30 attacks on commercial vessels, fishing boats and dhows since November, he said. Recent incidents include hostages being taken in December on board the Malta-flagged MV Ruen, which led to Indian, Japanese and Spanish warships rescuing its 18 crew members. That was the first successful hijacking of a vessel off the Somali coast since 2017, according to the International Maritime Bureau.

Piracy emerged off the coast of Somalia at the start of a civil war in the early 1990s. Attacks escalated in the early 2000s, when conflict erupted after Ethiopian forces invaded the country to depose of an Islamist administration. The number of incidents peaked in 2011, when 237 incidents took place, with 32 vessels held by pirates and 736 people taken hostage, according to the EU Naval Force.

Last month, the Houthi rebels conducted the largest number of attacks on commercial ships so far in 2024, with 16 vessels targeted, according to data published by the naval forces operating in the region.

Source: Bloomberg